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Newly discovered letters reveal the unlikely friendship that helped spur Margaret Mitchell to become one of Morehouse College’s most generous patrons.
This article originally appeared in our December 2010 issue.
Sometime after midnight, in the early morning of December 16, 1939—more than five hours after settling into their seats—the city’s elite flowed out of Loew’s Grand Theatre, overjoyed at the spectacle they’d just witnessed.
Margaret Mitchell emerged, enormously relieved. Hollywood had not destroyed her story after all. In fact, to her great surprise, Gone with the Wind was a cinematic masterpiece. The sense of dread she’d been carrying for the long months before seeing the movie had vanished, and the mood all around was celebratory.
Except something else was nagging at her now.
So the notoriously private author took pencil to paper and scribbled a quick note: “The premiere audience loved you and so did I,” she began.
Despite the lateness of the hour, thousands of Atlantans crowded Peachtree Street, eager to catch a glimpse of stars such as Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Many of Hollywood’s biggest names were there, but not the actress who was on Mitchell’s mind at that moment.
To the eternal shame of Atlanta, black cast members of Gone with the Wind had been excluded from the gala event—including Hattie McDaniel, whose portrayal of Mammy later would make her the first African American to win an Academy Award.
Gable himself was so enraged by the disgraceful treatment of his costars, he threatened to boycott the premiere—agreeing, finally, to make the trip to Atlanta only because McDaniel herself pleaded with him not to ruin the occasion.
Proving himself a great actor, Gable appeared delighted that night. As spotlights swept the sky above Loew’s Grand, the star who forever would be remembered as Rhett Butler grinned widely at newsreel cameras and shouted, “This is Margaret Mitchell’s night and the people of Atlanta’s night!”
His sarcasm would not have been lost on Mitchell, who is said to have been keenly sensitive to criticism.
The institutionalized discrimination in her hometown was “an embarrassment to her,” says Andrew Young, civil rights leader, U.S. congressman, United Nations ambassador, mayor of Atlanta, and filmmaker. Young’s most recent documentary, Change in the Wind, confirms the long-suspected existence of a friendship between Mitchell and McDaniel, and speculates it influenced Mitchell’s extraordinary—and often unrecognized—financial support of traditionally black Morehouse College.
At first, eloquent pleas for help from Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse, went unanswered by Mitchell and instead were politely rebuffed by her husband, John Marsh. However, as the famous author struggled, often unsuccessfully, to find adequate healthcare for beloved family servants Annie Rector, Carrie Holbrook, and Bessie Jordan, she became indignant over racial disparities in medical treatment and other basic services. Eventually, she developed an affectionate correspondence with the legendary Mays and became one of the college’s most generous patrons—anonymously funding the medical educations of dozens of Morehouse graduates.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not impartial on this subject. Change in the Wind is the latest in a series of Emmy Award–winning TV specials I have directed, working closely with Young. His groundbreaking film work dates to the 1950s and proved invaluable when he advised Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on media strategy. In February, at a special dinner in New York, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will present Young with an Emmy for lifetime achievement in television.
Although letters confirming Mitchell’s unlikely and potentially dangerous friendship with Mays were made public several years ago, Young wanted to understand and tell the story in greater detail. We uncovered fascinating pieces of “lost” history—including the simple yet extraordinary document Mitchell composed in haste on one of the most stressful and exciting nights of her life. The handwritten note was a telegram, finally sent at 5 a.m., delivered to the home of Hattie McDaniel in Los Angeles. On the morning after the premiere of Gone with the Wind, the California actress read, “The Mayor of Atlanta called for a hand for our Hattie McDaniel and I wish you could have heard the cheers.”
We also found dozens of other letters on the subject of race—unseen for decades—among Mitchell’s papers in an enormous, restricted collection at the University of Georgia.
“These revelations add to the growing body of evidence that Margaret Mitchell had deep and caring relationships with people from all walks of life, including African Americans,” says Mary Rose Taylor, founder and former executive director of the Margaret Mitchell House.
Taylor says the letters—many of them excerpted in Young’s documentary—provide insight into the author’s evolution from a spoiled, self-indulgent child of privilege into a driven visionary who accurately predicted Atlanta’s future as a black metropolis and quietly but fiercely fought racial inequities in education and healthcare.
“No one has seen these letters until now,” says Mary Ellen Brooks, director emeritus of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at UGA. Brooks devoted so much time to the research, she eventually became an executive producer of the documentary. “It’s not a browsable collection, and until you have the need to go find something for somebody, to answer a question, you don’t always know what’s there. You have to go with a mission. You go to hunt for something.”
The hunt yielded a number of previously undiscovered letters among the main collection of more than 25,000 documents, which were donated to UGA in 1969 by Stephens Mitchell, the author’s late brother. However, two years ago, Brooks acquired an additional fifty-seven archival boxes of correspondence for the Hargrett Library, and it was there she found a cache of correspondence between the author of Gone with the Wind and the actress who brought Mitchell’s favorite character, Mammy, to life.
“I felt very thrilled to actually find these and especially to let people know of this relationship that has not been fully explored,” says Brooks.
Although not its primary focus, Young’s documentary makes this information public for the first time, and he considers proof of the women’s friendship an important piece of a much larger puzzle.
“I think they actually developed a real respect and appreciation, if not love, for each other,” says Young. “If we hadn’t started dabbling, it might never have been known.”
McDaniel had written Mitchell for the first time just days before the premiere, not to complain about being excluded but to thank the author.
“I hope you will not think me presumptuous for writing you,” the actress began deferentially. McDaniel went on to praise Mitchell for writing with an “authenticity” that echoed stories of the Old South she’d heard from her own grandmother, and, especially, for creating the character of Mammy and making her “such an outstanding personage.”
Even though the letter arrived at the height of the frenzy surrounding the impending premiere, and the demands on Mitchell’s time were immense, she replied immediately and warmly.
It was the beginning of a lifelong correspondence between the two women: Mitchell, a white author often maligned for perceived racism in the pages of her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, and McDaniel, a black actress frequently criticized for accepting subservient roles that helped perpetuate racial stereotypes.
On May 1, 1941, McDaniel wrote to inform Mitchell of her elopement with Lloyd Crawford—starting her letter with the same apology as before: “I hope you will not think me presumptuous . . .”
Even on this occasion, McDaniel’s main purpose was to thank Mitchell again: “I am sending you this announcement not as a mere social form,” McDaniel wrote, “but in grateful recognition of the many fine things that have come my way since you created in your book the lovable character Mammy which enabled me to gain a measure of success in the field of cinema arts.”
A very special wedding gift from Mitchell arrived two weeks later. Several years earlier, the Atlanta Historical Society had sold custom-made Wedgwood after-dinner coffee cups decorated with scenes of old Atlanta, and Mitchell had purchased a number of sets, intending to present them to the stars of Gone with the Wind.
However, she explained, Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield—whom she describes in the letter as “an energetic man”—had the same idea, was quicker, and made his presentations first.
“Now,” Mitchell wrote, “I am sending you and your husband, as a wedding gift, some of these cups, and it will give me great pleasure to know that they are in your possession.”
McDaniel was thrilled with the fine china and amused by the story that came with it. “I suppose it is very selfish of me,” she wrote back, “but I am a bit glad that the mayor of Atlanta ‘beat you to the punch’ . . . for it makes your gift to us so much more personal and dear . . . We have shown them to everybody that comes to our house and they were photographed the other day when Warner Brothers studio sent someone out to take pictures of me frying chicken for Better Homes and Gardens magazine.”
In one letter, Mitchell turns the tables and thanks McDaniel. “Every time I see Gone with the Wind (and I have seen it five times) my appreciation of your genius in the part of Mammy has grown,” she wrote. “I have felt ungenerous that I have not written you fully about how wonderful I think you were.”
Referring to a climactic scene in which Rhett has locked himself in a room with his dead daughter, Bonnie, Mitchell wrote, “I do not weep easily but now I have wept five times at seeing you and Miss de Havilland go up the long stairs. In fact, it’s become a joke among my friends—but they cry, too!”
Mitchell was killed in 1949 after being hit by a drunk driver while crossing Peachtree Street with her husband, to whom McDaniel wrote a poignant letter of condolence. In it, McDaniel recounted a conversation with Sue Myrick, a close friend of the late author who had worked as an adviser during filming of Gone with the Wind.
“You know her as Miss Margaret Mitchell,” she quoted Myrick, “but I assure you she takes a greater pride in being known as Mrs. John Marsh.”
McDaniel added, “To me, that is one of the finest tributes that can ever be paid to you. I have never forgotten those words.”
The actress mourned Mitchell as she would a close friend. But McDaniel never made it to Atlanta, as her letter makes clear:
“I am sorry I never had a chance to meet Mrs. Marsh.”
This article originally ran in the January 2011 issue